Sarah Mueller sat down with Ulrike Rylance and chatted about her new bilingual book, Wo ist Hawaii, and her strategies for bilingual success with her daughters.
The original interview was conducted in German. This is the English translation.
Sarah: Thank you again for your time!
Ulrike: No problem.
Sarah: I read through the book this morning; it is beautiful!
Ulrike: Oh thank you. I sent you the CDs as well, right?
Sarah: Yes, right. I have them. So how did you come up with the idea to write the book?
Ulrike: Well, I wanted… I write other stories anyway, for children and for adults, but I really wanted to make something that was bilingual. I find that there’s just too few out there. I wrote it first in German, the poem, and wanted to make something that was a little international. With things that are bilingual, you have to make sure that the themes transcend countries, I mean, that it’s not just purely German or purely American. Then I came up with the idea of the trip and I wrote it first in German and just translated it into English. My friend is an illustrator and she told me she’d do it, and that’s how it originated.
Sarah: Wow, super! I really like the part at the end with the questions and the map – that’s great. I thought, “Oh, I need to get my map” but then I found it, already there.
Ulrike: Yes, that is for younger children, so that they can get an idea of what the world map is like, you know, and where it actually is and how they swam there and what they did wrong.
Sarah: Cute! And it rhymes so nicely as well.
Ulrike: Yes. My friend already had the idea that we should maybe a second part sometime. Up to now they’ve only seen half of the world, actually. There’s still China, India, a whole other corner of the world, and you could send them there.
Sarah: Maybe they could finally reach Hawaii! (laughing)
Ulrike: Yes, exactly.
Sarah: The poor things. Yeah, a second book would be nice.
Ulrike: And the CD, someone told me that it would be a good idea, so the kids can, so to speak, “read” along, you know, and can turn the pages and take it in the car… That’s why we made the CD.
Sarah: Yeah, that is your daughter on it, right?
Ulrike: Yes, Lizzy reads the German, and the illustrator’s daughter, Randi’s daughter, she reads the English.
Sarah: Oh, okay. And how old is your daughter?
Ulrike: She is eleven. She’s just turned eleven.
Sarah: She speaks such beautiful German.
Ulrike: Oh, thank you.
Sarah: How does it work in your family at home? Do you all speak German together? Or German and English?
Ulrike: Well, my husband doesn’t speak German. My husband is English; we actually lived first in England. He can’t say anything [in German]. I actually have always spoken German with the kids from the beginning, everywhere, and they have just learned it. In the meantime, when he’s around, we speak English of course, but as soon as I’m alone with them, I speak in German with them. When they were younger, I mostly said everything twice – I would say something in German and then say “Now we need to say that again in English because Daddy doesn’t understand us!” That’s basically how it’s unfolded, yeah.
Sarah: Okay, and have the children lived in Germany before or have they been in Seattle the whole time?
Ulrike: Oh, they have never lived in Germany. We were in London for the first four years and than since 2001 we’ve been in America. But we travel often back home to my parents, about twice a year, and that helps. My daughter has a German pen pal as well. I encourage that a bit, that she keeps that relationship. Do you have children?
Sarah: Yes, I have three kids, three sons. The oldest is eight, then one who is five and one is two now. My husband is German and I am American – we try to speak German and English. Partially more English than German, but they understand everything and they always speak German with the youngest. He speaks it very nicely actually, very great. When they want to talk to him they speak German but when they talk to me they speak English. They are comfortable with that. But it will come. We’re working on it.
Ulrike: I think when they are around 12 and have learned it well then they won’t lose it. They see a reason to learn it as well, you know, because they love Germany and they love German food, and they love Grandma and Grandpa and the German swimming pools… They like to go there when they can, so they have an incentive, you know? If we never traveled there, they would probably eventually ask, why do we do this?
Sarah: Yes, exactly, but they have good memories and a good relationship with it. So, what was – a question that my customers always ask – What was the biggest challenge in raising the two children bilingually? What do you find was the hardest?
Ulrike: Well, I haven’t actually had many challenges, but I know for many it’s the Tatsache of just being consistent, that you always speak German, even when in the moment you don’t like it. For example, at the playground or in the grocery store, when you immediately give away that you’re a foreigner. Many who live in America want to integrate and appear to be American. And as soon as you speak to your children loudly in German, everyone knows it. So, I think it’s a problem for some, and then they cut back and forth between the languages, and as soon as they do that, it is in principle, lost. Because the children see that and they don’t learn that they should speak German. I have seen some cases where it didn’t work because the parents just didn’t stay consistent.
Sarah: So, just staying consistent and then…
Ulrike: Yeah, I know that as we lived in England… they have a little bit different relationship to Germans, and it wasn’t as easy there to stay consistent and speak German everywhere.
Sarah: Really? It was harder in England then?
Ulrike: Yes, they are a little more – well, in America they are actually very open to all nations. I wouldn’t say that they are hostile there [in England], I wouldn’t go that far – but it’s a little bit different atmosphere. I know I man in England who had a 14-year-old daughter who once told him he shouldn’t speak to her in that stupid language, it was embarrassing her.
Sarah: Oh, no! That’s too bad!
Ulrike: And they live in Wales where there just aren’t any other Germans and it was terribly uncomfortable for her that her father spoke to her in this stupid language. So, that’s what I mean, you know? That’s definitely a reason for some to give up speaking German, I think.
Sarah: Luckily we don’t have that here. In my experience it’s always positively accepted.
Ulrike: Yeah, it is a little different here. At any rate, in Germany it’s the opposite, I would say. When the children speak English they are excited, it’s even more positive actually.
Sarah: It’s supported there. Can your children read and write as well? Well, obviously that can read already, right?
Ulrike: They read, yes. The older one, Lizzy, she reads German books – a little lower level than what she reads in English, but it’s also a little more strenuous for her, it’s not as relaxing, but she does it anyway. She’s begun to read Cornelia Funke’s Tintentod. But she’s not so good at writing yet. She writes like Pippi Longstocking. (laughing) But I have to say, I don’t think about it much. I think when she can read and speak German then she can take a course to learn to write later when she’s a little older. Then she’ll have that as well. I must say that’s it’s more important to read and speak. The younger one, she has just learned to read in English, she is just in first grade.
Sarah: And how old is she?
Ulrike: She’s seven.
Sarah: One is seven and the other is eleven, right? Yeah. Do you think you will go back to Germany sometime? I mean, move back? Or are you staying here…?
Ulrike: I don’t think so actually. As I said, my husband doesn’t speak a word of German – that would be a huge adjustment for us and he would probably go back to England, but I don’t think that I’d necessarily want to go there. All in all, we will probably stay here. Well, you don’t know for sure, I would never say “never”. It’s not in our plans, I’ll say that much.
Sarah: I understand. And there are many Germans in Seattle, in the area.
Ulrike: Yes, actually. That’s why it’s not so urgent for me to go back home.
Sarah: I think I’ve asked all my questions. Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Ulrike: Well, no. I just hope that people like it.
Sarah: Oh, yes, I wanted to ask that – What’s the reaction to it? Have you already sold many books in the area?
Ulrike: Yes, we have sold some here in Seattle in the schools. I presented the book at the German kindergarten in the ABC-Schule. Overall positive reactions – it’s so nice, a good idea, cute. Many also have said that they also think that there’s not enough bilingual books. And that’s true. I think there are some in Germany, some paperbacks and novels, for when the children are a little older, around 10, that are written in the two languages – German and English. But I haven’t seen many for younger children that maybe have a German-speaking father and an English-speaking mother.
Sarah: That’s true.
Ulrike: You probably know that, you have a book store. Do you have any? Any others like this?
Sarah: I have a few - “Kleiner Eisbär” that you can buy. The Nord-Süd Verlag has many bilingual books, but they are more picture books for language courses. This [book] is a little smaller but also nice and long. That’s nice that’s it’s not over in two minutes. I like that.
Ulrike: We just thought… in my personal opinion, children learn language better through rhymes. They learn so many things through songs. My children have learned many songs and have learned better through them. That’s why I wrote the story in rhyme. That way that can memorize it and say it along with [the CD]. The rhythm and melody of it makes a difference.
Sarah: I think so too. So, as we said, another one, right? Hawaii, number two. Then I will buy that as well!
Ulrike: I already think that we’ll make another one. I’m also working with a friend on one about a snowman. Maybe we’ll have that ready before next Christmas. It’s also in German/English and in rhyme. It’s about a snowman looking for a wife. It’s also a little of a overarching theme. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Christmas; more about winter. It’s intended for all countries.
Sarah: Nice! Once again, thank you for your time. I will be putting the book on the website in the next few days and then hopefully I can order some more!
Ulrike: Thank you.
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